Gastric Ulcers: Management Key to Prevention

During the past 15 years, the prevailing view on horsemanship has promoted working with horses and decreasing handling stress. Tips on imprinting foals and improving communication between horses and humans have been abundant in publications that target equine enthusiasts.

Interestingly enough, the prevalence of gastric ulcers has been reported from 25-50% in foals and 60-90% in adult horses, depending on age and level of performance. This brings up the question of whether the incidence of gastric ulcers is increasing, or we are now better at diagnosing this ailment.

Equally important, provided these numbers are accurate, how do proactive horse owners effectively treat and prevent gastric ulcers? The reality is that gastric ulcers are a man-made disease, and the majority of horses with gastric ulcers do not show outward symptoms. Oftentimes poor appetite, decreased performance, and a poor hair coat are subtle symptoms that can be attributed to other causes, while more severe cases manifest themselves as colic.

Definitive diagnosis involves placing an endoscope into the stomach and evaluating its surface. Gastric ulcers arise from the erosion of the lining of the stomach due to prolonged exposure to the normal acid in the stomach. Because the design of the horses' digestive system favors continuous intake, the horse's stomach is relatively small (8-12 quart capacity) and continually secretes acid. Attempting to confine horses, adapt them to an 8-5 schedule, and turn them into meal feeders might promote a stomach environment that has prolonged periods when the stomach remains empty. Acid accumulates, and not only is there is not any feed present to neutralize the acid, the buffering capabilities of saliva are also not effectively used.

Unlike the Pavlov's dog theory, where salivation is a conditioned response, horses need mechanical stimulation--that is, chewing--to stimulate salivation. Vices such as wood chewing and cribbing that are exaggerated in horses that are idle, stalled, or managed in confinement might just be a symptom of gastric discomfort. Environmental and physical stresses also increase the likelihood of ulcers.

Transportation, commingling, and training oftentimes interrupt the eating behavior of horses, and intense exercise might depress the emptying function and alter the gastric blood flow, thus contributing to the problem. Furthermore, anti-inflammatory medications such as phenylbutazone (bute) and the pain reliever banamine have been implicated in making the stomach more susceptible to ulcers.

In light of all this, treatment should be aimed at removing the predisposing factors and manage acid production. If you have a horse in a training program, one that is prone to be nervous, or one that is hauled extensively, and if it is exhibiting the previously stated symptoms, you need to take a hard look at what can be done to alleviate the physical and emotional stress while managing acid production. The simplest way is allowing free-choice access to long stem forages or multiple meals per day. This stimulates saliva production, which is nature's best antacid.

Evaluating the dietary energy needs of your horses and making appropriate changes in the form of energy (starch vs. fat) may benefit some horses as well. Horses also find strength in numbers so providing social stimulation will go a long way in limiting stressful situations.

Medical treatment is advised if other options have been exhausted, as there are products available that are designed to decrease the amount of acid the body produces. If you are administering anti-inflammatory or pain medication to horses that are subject to high levels of stress, proactive ulcer prevention might be warranted. Consult your veterinarian about treatment protocols.

The more we can complement the natural digestive characteristics of horses, the better off we will be in the long run. The natural tendency is to kill our horses with kindness and this oftentimes creates unintended stress that ultimately is avoidable, provided we take into account the digestive capabilities that horses possess.

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